The river straightens up as I approach Radcot, and the bridge is visible for quite a distance. However, as I draw closer other bridges appear in view. The various developments over the ages at Radcot have resulted in a chain of three bridges crossing three different streams of the waterway.
Radcot means “cottage by the road” and is mentioned in the Domesday Book as a two family unit with 24 acres of farmland. The ultimate owner was recorded as the King as was the common trend at the time.
There has been a bridge of some sorts at Radcot since the 10th century, but the first stone bridge was completed in 1225 and parts of this still stand to make this the oldest “proper” bridge across the Thames. The only craftsmen in those days who had the necessary skills to perform the task were attached to the religious houses, so the builders were probably monks from nearby Faringdon.
Radcot grew in importance as a consequence of the construction industry. Buildings were designed to look imposing and boost the prestige of those who lived in them. The finest buildings demanded the finest materials and there was no stone finer for this purpose than Taynton or Burford stone. There was just one small difficulty; the stone was in West Oxfordshire and the elegant buildings were planned for Oxford and London. The most efficient way of transporting the large quantities of stone required was by barge and the nearest waterway to the quarries was the Thames at Radcot so it was here that the wharves were built.
In the beginning simple wooden wharves were built and the stone loaded on to lighters that would take their cargo downstream to Oxford and then transferred to larger vessels to continue the voyage to London. Such was the demand from the Oxford Colleges and the stately buildings of London for this stone that this means of transportation was insufficient, and in the style of Captain Quint* someone declared “We need a bigger boat”.
(* Captain Quint, character from the film “Jaws” played by Robert Shaw. When hunting for the shark the target bit through his craft, prompting the dry comment “We need a bigger boat”).
Bigger boats required bigger wharves. A canal was dug out and two new bridges were made, Canal Bridge and Pidnell Bridge, making the current chain of three.
For a tiny place Radcot has had more than its fair share of what today’s media would call “incidents”.
It is fair to say that Stephen was not our most popular King. Some would go further and say that he was the worst King we have ever had bar none. When you look closely at some of the other candidates for this award Stephen must have been a total washout to deserve this accolade. Matilda, Countess of Anjou, certainly thought so, and spent much of her time campaigning to depose him. Part of her plan involved setting up an earthworks castle in 1141 at Radcot causing travellers to make a wide detour. Whether this had any effect on Stephen as he sat enthroned in London doing his reigning is unknown, but it must have irritated the hell out of the weary traveller.
Things warmed up considerably during the reign of Richard II, who was one of those monarchs who seems to have been chasing after Stephen’s “worst King”, title. Richard was involved in a real family ding-dong with his relatives as they fought to influence him in his running of the country. This bickering faction was mainly composed of Richard’s uncles and collectively known as the “Lords Appellant”. Richard’s chief adversary was Thomas of Woodstock who was the Duke of Gloucester. He managed to persuade Richard that his favourite uncle, Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, was plotting against him. De Vere heard about the plot and fled to the midlands where he drew together an army of 15,000 men and marched them southwards. His plan was to reinforce the Kings troops and then to show Gloucester the error of his ways and teach him a lesson.
Gloucester responded by advancing northward with a much larger army to intercept De Vere’s forces. This action forced de Vere to take avoiding actions and take a diversion via Radcot. De Vere arrived at Radcot on the 19th of December 1387 and promptly found that his situation had deteriorated drastically because the Earl of Derby, Henry Bolingbroke (who would later become Henry IV) had taken his troops to guard the bridge to prevent De Vere advancing any further. To make matters worse Bolingbroke had removed the centre arch of the bridge to make sure that De Vere’s army could not cross the river and so would be forced to fight. The ensuing battle was very one-sided.
Put yourselves in the position of De Vere’s men. In front of you lies a broken bridge plus a lot of very aggressive men poking pikestaffs in your face. Behind them are a battalion of archers who look as though they mean business. Look to the north and all you can see are the rapidly advancing superior forces of Gloucester’s army. What do you do?
Scarper; that’s what.
De Vere joined them, forcing his horse to leap into the river to help him make his getaway. Amazingly he succeeded and eventually made his way to France where he later died in exile.
Gloucester and Bolingbroke naturally made the most of their victory. They returned to London and with the other Lords Appellant wrested control from the King and were able to condemn many of Richard’s allies to an untimely end.
The bridge was repaired in 1393 and a monument for the battle was positioned on the bridge. Unfortunately this monument has since become lost.
More than two hundred and fifty years later the bridge was again the scene of a major incident. During the Civil War Royalist forces captured the bridges and established a garrison at nearby Radcot House. This helped to protect the supply route to loyalist Oxford. The Royalists held out against the Parliamentarians despite severe losses, but finally, in May 1646 the bridge was recaptured and as consequence Oxford fell to the Roundheads.
Quite a lot happened here in days gone by. You would not think it from the peaceful air that exists on this sunny spring morning. The only activity is a few people pottering about on their boats moored by the banks, and a lonely walker making his way along the towpath.
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